adventures in da nang

paper cranesAs we approach the season of Ridván, our little family is wrapping up a three-month-long visit with family in Da Nang, Vietnam. It’s been a time of adjustment and learning—mostly adjusting to the presence of our newborn son and to our new role as parents, and learning how to function, thrive, teach and serve as a family. Our regular neighbourhood children’s class has been in the capable hands of our team back in Canada, and we’ve had a few adventures of our own during that time.

The Baha’i community of Da Nang, blessed with a group of selfless and devoted youth in its midst, is currently at the forefront of activity in Vietnam, or so we’re told. Several active groups for the empowerment of junior youth have been established in three of the city’s districts, all of which are generating a lot of learning. In at least one of these districts, a children’s class has also been functioning, generating learning about the interaction between these vital activities. Our family lives in a different district of the city, where a junior youth group is active but, due to a lack of human resources available, there haven’t been any children’s classes for a while. During our visit, we wanted to help change that.

Quỳnh’s sister Quyên, who, you may remember, runs a kindergarten, has two young boys, aged seven and nine years old. After spending some time trying to get to know our neighbours, we decided to go ahead and start a small class with Quyên’s sons. The boys have two close friends—girls from a Buddhist family that are just like sisters to them—and when they heard they were having a special class with their uncle from Canada, they decided they were coming, too. We had four classes at our home in all, mostly on weekends. They were informal, experimental classes, but lots of fun all the same.

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now comes the real learning

The month of November has been a pretty intense one. First of all, we’ve welcomed into our lives a new soul, baby Kiên, who’s been taking his introduction to the physical world fairly well—although not well enough to sleep through the night. Becoming a parent is already a transformative experience, one that’s sure to give us countless new insights into the work of teaching as we strive to find the gems of virtue hidden in the mines of our son’s soul.

November was intense for another reason, as well: throughout the month I’ve been participating in a certification course for TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), equivalent to a full university course. It was a great experience that brought me a lot of insight into not only working with and accommodating speakers of other languages, but teaching as a profession as well. Since we deal with speakers of English as a second (or third, or fourth) language in our current children’s class, taking this training will undoubtedly have a big impact on what we do, and allow us to explore new ways of teaching and interacting with our children and their families. Throughout the course, I was able to glean a number of really useful tips that I’ll do my best to share here in the weeks and months to come—keep an eye on the blog and on the language and literacy tips section for new tidbits.

To close out, I’d like to give a special welcome to my fellow classmates, many of whom are just finding out about this website as we start to share ESL and teaching resources online! You’ll note that this website is geared towards general teaching resources as opposed to ESL, and is aimed mainly at teachers of moral and character education classes offered by the worldwide Bahá’í community. All the same, you’ll probably find a lot of these resources useful to ESL teaching, including our vocabulary builders, ideas for activities such as arts, crafts and games, our section on teacher tips, and of course the blog, where we write down our experience with lesson plans, classroom management. Take a look around, print out and use whatever you’d like, and feel free to leave feedback!

summer note

path of cloudsAs summer arrives here in the Northern hemisphere, the time is ripe for reflection on another season of our neighbourhood children’s class. While we definitely can’t say we’ve achieved some of our most cherished goals—like establishing new classes to accommodate cousins and friends with different schedules—we’ve made other kinds of progress in our path of service. Our core participants, all cousins and siblings, are well engaged with the class and seem to be scaling the language barrier with more confidence and ease than before. Although our vocabulary builders made an impact in that respect, two other decisions we made seem to have made more of a difference: choosing shorter, simpler quotes to account for the children’s reading level, and increasing the number of times we repeat each lesson (from two times in a row to three or four). Focusing on getting the children to practice prayers inside and outside class has also made a big difference in the children’s engagement. We’re starting to think of doing something like the prayer books we’ve made in the past, so that the children would have something that they could take home to help them study their prayers on their own—not a bad idea to help kick off a new school year in September.

We’ve worked a lot on our functioning as a neighbourhood teaching team this season, too: there’s a core of three of us passing the duties of junior youth animator and children’s class teacher back and forth between us, accommodating vacations and other scheduled absences without sacrificing the regularity of the class. The result is that we’ve barely missed a class in the past six months, except that one time when we all ended up sick on the same weekend. That’s a pretty good record for a neighbourhood children’s class, and it’s all because we have a dedicated teaching team. Acting together as a team really makes us stronger than we could be on our own, and keeps us from feeling too much discouragement as we persevere along our path of service—as I sometimes did when I was teaching alone.

Now that it’s summertime, we’re expecting to have more time to regroup and reflect on next steps. One of those steps will probably be to expand the team, since at least one of us (my wife) will be giving birth to a baby boy in the fall and will probably be less available. Engaging neighbourhood youth, including some of the older siblings and cousins of the children in our class, will be a priority, especially considering the focus on youth in the latest guidance from the Universal House of Justice. We’ve already asked one youth to help out with activities during the summer and floated the idea to others; beyond that, there are many more eager youth out there who we need to follow up with. Lots of home visits will be in order, as we reconnect with families who’ve dropped off our so-called radar and renew the ties of friendship and fellowship with them. As always, watch this space!

Speaking of watching this space, you may have noticed a change in the layout and design of our website; welcome to the long awaited “version 2.0”! If you’re reading this via email, then please take a moment to check out the new look and let us know what you think in the comments. Our hope is that it’ll be easier for you to find what you’re looking for, whether it be lesson plans, activities, downloadables or insights and experience.

cooperation and reciprocity (take 1)

Today’s lesson: cooperation and reciprocity.

May 25, 2013: 6 children, ages 8-11. Our first week with this lesson, based on Lesson 12 in Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2, Set 4. We spent most of the time going over the quote for the lesson: “The supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity.” The quote is actually quite simple, so once we tackled the big words—like “cooperation” and “reciprocity”—the children got it pretty well. We wrote one or two words on sheets of paper and had the children mix them up and put them back together in different ways: standing them up on a windowsill, having them hold them up above their heads and stand in the correct order, and so on.

We also briefly touched upon the story of Nettie Tobin and the founding of the Bahá’í House of Worship, although we didn’t have the time to go through it as completely as we had liked. One of our co-teachers was at the House of Worship for the annual Choral Festival this week, so we tied that into our explanation and showed them a few photos, which they really loved.

Reflecting on this class, I should note how nice it is to have a class consist of children in a narrow age range, as it really simplifies things. We can count on them to have a roughly similar reading level and attention span, for instance. The feeling of not having to work at two speeds—balancing precariously between making younger children feel overwhelmed and making older children feel bored—helps take some weight off our shoulders.

a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went. This post was originally blogged at doberman pizza.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

building vocabulary and community

vocabulary buildingJanuary is done, and we’re advancing into an exciting February filled with promise for our neighbourhood. Our junior youth have finished studying Glimmerings of Hope, and we’re holding a “graduation” ceremony for them this Thursday (now there’s something we should do for the children’s class, too). That group will soon move on to study Breezes of Confirmation, hopefully doubling in size if everyone who said they were coming actually comes. Some of the new junior youth had attended a few sessions before—back when we first started with Glimmerings—but dropped out for various reasons. We think at least one of those reasons related to the more advanced language used in that book; hopefully, Breezes will help us address that issue.

In a recent post I wrote about our struggles with language and literacy levels. In the month that’s passed since then, we’ve done a few things with our children’s class that are worth reflecting on.

First off, we started offering more activities for building vocabulary. The most popular ones were our “vocabulary builders”, which you can find on the files page. These consist of two sheets of paper: one printed with a grid of pictures on one side and words on the reverse, and the other with a grid containing phrases, each missing a word. The goal is for the children to match the pictures with the phrase, and then write the corresponding word into the blank space in the phrase. For example, a picture of a report card with the word “attain” on the reverse would match up with the phrase “Because he worked hard, Jun was able to _________ high marks on his report card.”

vocabulary buildingSo far, the children have responded well to these vocabulary builders, as long as we don’t use them every week (too much of the same thing becomes mundane, I guess). They use them a little differently than I’d expected: instead of taping only one side of the picture to the grid to allow them to reveal the phrase below, they prefer to glue the picture directly to the grid, meaning that both the word and phrase are hidden—only the picture is visible. To get around this, I’ll probably design the next one differently, so that, for example, each phrase has an empty space next to it where they can glue the picture. As well, the picture and the word could be on the same side of the paper, so that the word’s not hidden when they glue down the picture.

Another thing we’ve done—and this is a big one—is to start focusing on getting them to practice saying prayers every day of the week, and not just during the class. We’ve even called them up during the week to remind them to say their prayers. This has had a noticeable effect on the children and on class discipline. Now, instead of struggling with “O God, guide me”, the ones who’ve been reciting the prayers during the week are calm, present and confident during prayers. That confidence rubs off onto the other children, who see the seriousness and readiness with which their peers are approaching prayer time, and seem to clean up their own act in response. As I wrote before, sometimes it might just take a friend to set the example to inspire others to follow suit.

As we know, having the children reciting prayers outside of class isn’t just about building vocabulary; it’s about giving them regular contact with the creative Word of God. That’s why it’s a much more exciting and significant development than coming up with a clever vocabulary building activity. Reciting and memorizing prayers has the potential to kindle the children’s souls, and create within them spiritual susceptibilities. I remember calling up one of the parents recently and asking about whether her daughter was reading her prayers, and she replied in amazement that she was—that she would often find her standing in front of the refrigerator (where we posted a copy of the prayer) silently, and then walk off. Big transformations start with little changes, and I hope that before the year is out, we can report back with even greater changes—ones that may foster the growth of a profound devotional character in these families, and in the entire community.